Going digital

“This should improve our module evaluations by 0.4…”


The big question of how we forward (not back) in our teaching practice is one that continues to bother me, partly because it’s going to be a major personal challenge for me in the coming years, but also because the variety of discourses about this vary rather more than I’d expect.

As a case in point, I noticed that my VC/President wrote a long blog about this question just the other week. In it, he writes about the possibilities that digital technologies open up and how we need to be receptive and pro-active in making the most of these.

And that’s all fine.

However, what strikes me about the piece is that there’s no mention at any point about pedagogy. Instead it posits a system driven by what the tech can do.

Having gotten to spend some time with him, I know that he does have a genuine and deep interest in teaching in itself, rather than simply as a side-show from research or a money-generating activity (unlike some VCs I’ve encountered), but it’s a bit disappointing to see a senior leader get caught up in the tech.

Tech matters. This past 12 months have demonstrated that all too clearly, but tech is (and can only ever be) a function of pedagogy. More precisely, the fundamentals of good pedagogic practice – clear learning objectives; alignment of content and assessment; responsive design – are just that, fundamentals.

Consider last spring, when you were scrambling around for a means to continue your classes. You probably had an institutional VLE or platform intended specifically for that purpose, plus access to some other tools, either supported by your institution or not.

In the first instance, I’m guessing you took the path of least resistance in setting up ad hoc ways to get content to students and/or having interactions with them.

But then you started to look around at the world of possibilities, just like my VC is suggesting. But in making your new choices, the key driver was likely to have been “what works best for my and my students’ needs” than it was “what amazing thing is possible here”.

In twenty-something years of teaching, I’ve gone from acetates to Zoom, blackboards to Google Docs. But I can think of very few technologies that have fundamentally changed how I teach and only one that changes what I’m trying to achieve with my teaching.

The one change in objectives was the arrival of the digital world and the cornucopia of data that made available. The result was a need to shift from prioritising the acquisition of techniques to find data to stressing ways of managing all-too-much data. And even then, I still find myself telling students how to track down hard-to-find sources.

But otherwise, the bulk of my learning objectives are the same: building substantive knowledge of a topic; acquiring and using skills that make the student into a critical learner; situating all of this within a wider body of understanding.

In short, tech is a means, not an end.

Again, I’ve tried lots of different technological options: some have been great, others alright, a few rubbish. But I could only judge that against the yardstick of my pedagogy and the learning of my students. Great that they can make a whizzy Prezi, but does it actually help them to learn? And I say that as someone who’d love experience more engaging presentations.

So, in the time-honoured cliché of science-fiction, we have to stop wondering what what we can do and start thinking about whether we should do it.

If not, then we risk falling into another cycle of expensive tech acquisition that doesn’t work for our needs, just like we did most of the other times our institutions bought some tech.

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